The government’s proposed cuts to legal aid are being subjected to a legal challenge by the independent charity Action Against Medical Accidents (AvMA). Victims of clinical negligence who can’t afford to hire a solicitor would no longer receive financial support to fight their case in court if the government’s plans go ahead.
AvMA has labelled the plans “completely irrational” and warned that those who are most vulnerable will have their access to justice cut off. Defending the proposals, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has said that victims will still be able to get legal representation through ‘no win, no fee’ agreements, which are being reformed.
Despite these assurances, the government has been accused of failing to take heed of the arguments for protecting legal aid for clinical negligence victims. AvMA has pointed out that just 17m of the 2.2bn legal aid budget is spent on clinical negligence cases, and claims that the NHS’s work on patient safety would be harmed by the cuts. It has also suggested that the cuts could ultimately end up costing the taxpayer more.
In England and Wales, legal aid dates back to the Legal Aid and Advice Act 1949. In light of spiralling costs in recent years, the government hopes to reduce the annual bill by roughly 350m by 2015.
At present, legal aid is only available to children and those whose incomes entitle them to benefits. Reforms to the ‘no win, no fee’ system will prevent lawyers from claiming ‘success fees’ from the losers. Instead, they will probably get a share of the damages. The government argues these reforms will reduce the number of “spurious cases”, but critics say the net result will be a reduction in the number of solicitors taking on legitimate clinical negligence cases, as many would be regarded as too complex or too risky. Even the NHS Litigation Authority, which deals with negligence claims against the NHS, has warned that the proposals will be detrimental for the most vulnerable people, and predicts that they will “result in an overall increase in public expenditure, rather than the decrease that is sought.”
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